By Valerie Peterson
Local lore suggests the cocktail was invented in Elmsford around the time of the Revolutionary War, when a barmaid would garnish drinks with the tail feathers of roosters from Loyalist chicken coops. And it’s a fact that Purchase has long been the United States base of the French spirits giant Pernod Ricard (Absolut, Beefeater, Kahlúa) and that New Rochelle is home to Sidney Frank spirits importer (Jagermeister). But despite Westchester County’s intoxicating background, there had been no alcoholic spirits distilled there since Prohibition. No legal spirits, at least.
That changed last August when a fledgling distillery released its first wares from an industrial enclave along the Byram River in Port Chester. Made from pure honey, StilltheOne Distillery’s Comb Vodka, Comb 9 Gin and, new last month, Comb Blossom Brandy are getting raves from cocktail experts both in and beyond the county’s borders, much to the satisfaction of its local owners, Ed and Laura Tiedge.
Article and Kelly Shimoda’s photo are copyright © The New York Times Company and appear for portfolio use only.
The distillery’s name refers to the 26-year marriage of the Pelham Manor couple, who came into the distilling business through a mixture of necessity, passion for their product and a little bit of fate.
“I was a bond trader for years,” said Mr. Tiedge, who wears the hats of distiller and salesman. “But when the job landscape became really rocky and my stock options became worthless, I had to start thinking about what else I could to do to pay the mortgage and finish getting my kids through college.” Given his analytical background and passion for food, becoming a math teacher or going to culinary school were among the possibilities.
While doing research, he learned that New York’s distillery licensing fees had changed to allow small-batch distillers to get a license for about $1,500 — a small fraction of the $50,000 fee the state had previously levied. “I realized that a distillery’s start-up and fixed overhead costs could be manageable,” he said.
But the decision to make the leap wasn’t an easy one. “We thought long and hard before we put savings into this — it’s risky and a little bit scary,” said Mrs. Tiedge, who works full time as the senior director of healthy living for the Rye YMCA while holding the titles of social media guru and C.T.O. (Chief Tasting Officer) at StilltheOne. “But it’s been a great adventure,” she said. “We’ve been fortunate.”
One unexpected catalyst of their good fortune was the racing green Porsche 911 Turbo Mr. Tiedge had purchased during his heyday in finance and ended up selling for some of the seed money. Confiding the reason for the sale to the car’s Swiss buyer, Markus Matuschka, he discovered that Mr. Matuschka just happened to own a Cognac distillery. Mr. Tiedge was invited to spend two months in France and Switzerland to apprentice and soak up as much information as possible.
But if apprenticing in Europe sounds glamorous, StilltheOne’s cavernous space — filled with glass beakers and hydrometers, a variety of hulking fermentation tanks and stills, and cartons of as-yet-unused bottles — speaks to the science and hard labor involved in the distilling business, especially with a unique, untried product.
“Laura and I wanted to do something special,” Mr. Tiedge said. “The world doesn’t need another $40 potato vodka.” While learning about mead (honey wine), Mr. Tiedge hit upon the idea of distilling the honey into vodka. As he tested different varieties of honey and strains of yeast he discovered that, in addition to being a more expensive base ingredient than potatoes, honey is tricky to work with.
“The first full-scale test to make 500 gallons of the base honey wine required 1,100 pounds — half a metric ton — of orange blossom honey,” Mr. Tiedge said. “It was a nerve-wracking $2,500 experiment. Lucky for us, it was a success.”
It takes about a gallon of honey to make the same quantity of spirits, and, though not a flavored vodka, Comb Vodka subtly retains its base ingredient’s characteristics — a slight, very appealing viscosity and exceptional smoothness. “It’s great in a martini or for sipping straight up or on the rocks,” Joseph Price, the mixologist at Plates in Larchmont, was overheard telling a customer. The Tiedges chose orange blossom honey over clover or wildflower because the flower’s essence complements so many cocktail ingredients, especially citrus.
“Comb expresses itself beautifully in mixed drinks — when we tasted it, we were very excited by the cocktail possibilities,” said Christopher Gambelli, wine director for Moderne Barn, whose gorgeously vibrant Honey Wallbanger tarts up the vodka with peak-of-the-season blood orange juice.
Plates’s popular Tuscan Tangelini also takes advantage of Comb and seasonal citrus pairing, giving freshly squeezed tangelo juice the honeyed background notes of the vodka and a lightly herbaceous counterpoint with star anise-and-fennel-seed-infused simple syrup.
Botanicals like juniper, licorice root, galangal and lavender are among those with which the Tiedges infuse the honey spirit to make the Comb 9 Gin, which, like the vodka, sells for about $35 for a fifth. The signature blend gives drinks like the classic Negroni a distinctive, floral nose.
StilltheOne also creates proprietary gins. A former Marine, Mr. Tiedge is especially proud of the Jarhead Gin he developed exclusively for, and donated to, a recent Wounded Warrior Project auction fund-raiser, to benefit veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Blue Hill at Stone Barns, he worked with the general manager, Philippe Gouze, to carefully make the soon-to-be-released From the Field Gin.
“We taste a lot of spirits, but we were immediately impressed with Ed’s and started featuring them,” Mr. Gouze said. “They’re of such high quality, made with so much love — and right in our area. We wanted to work with him.” From the Field incorporates Stone Barns’s own honey and herbs.
The latest Comb spirit was recently released from its six months in new oak. Mr. Tiedge learned his Cognac lessons well. Comb Blossom Brandy (about $26 a pint) has a touch of sweetness on the nose and is very smooth on the palate.
Right now Mr. Tiedge said he was measuring success “one case at a time.” But he’s just put in a larger, as yet untried, fermentation tank, and he’s expanding the distillery space by 60 percent to create a separate area for bottling, as well as for aging his brandy.
The Tiedges enjoy having their business close to home in Westchester, where their children, Sarah and Erik, and their friends sometimes pitch in for bottling or cleaning the tanks. “The local restaurants and liquor stores have been so supportive,” Mrs. Tiedge said. “We’re so grateful for all the people who want to see us succeed.”
Many of those restaurants and stores are listed on StilltheOne’s Web site (combvodka.com). The distillery is licensed to distribute Comb products only in New York, so out-of-state imbibers might have to wait for a taste until there’s broader distribution. Given the growing number of fans, that probably won’t be for long — just last month Comb Vodka took a silver medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, a fitting footnote to the new chapter in Westchester cocktail history.
Leave a Reply